Charlie Rasmussen arrived on Broadway as a production carpenter at the Broadway Theatre in 1950. Sixty-one years later, at age 85, Rasmussen is in his office at the Broadway Theatre, one floor below the stage where Sister Act has finished a Wednesday matinee — and where he has been, since 1980, the theatre's house, or head, carpenter.
"Show business has been very good to me," he says in his gentle voice (he is known to many as "Whispering Sam"). "It's a good business. Can you find better?"
He is the oldest active member of Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union that builds, installs, maintains and works the scenery, sound/lighting equipment and special effects.
Rasmussen was among those honored last month during Broadway Salutes, an annual event where the Broadway League — the producers organization — and the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds recognize professionals for 25, 35, 50 or more years of stage service. For Rasmussen, "it adds up to 65 years."
He grew up in South Lyme, CT, and got his first theatre job in summer stock at Connecticut's Ivoryton Playhouse in 1946 building scenery "for a different show every week."
Why show business? "An old-timer told me years ago that if I was going to work with my hands, I should go where I'm going to make the most money."
His mother and father were wary. "They thought I was wasting my time. But I wound up getting my dad a job." (He hired his father for the Metropolitan Opera set shop, where Charlie was employed some years later.)
In 1948, Charlie moved to New York, where he worked in a scenery shop. He passed the test to get into Local One. His first show at the Broadway was the revue Pardon Our French. After four years, he headed to Europe to tour with Porgy and Bess.
Over the years, Rasmussen has built sets at the old and new Metropolitan Opera Houses — for a time he ran the Met's Lincoln Center carpentry shop. He has worked other Broadway theatres, had his own firm, worked in other shops and constructed sets for many Broadway productions. "I brought in big musicals," he says. He even signed former Metropolitan Opera general manager Joe Volpe's letter to get into Local One. (Volpe's career at the Met began as a carpenter.)
His Broadway credits include Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, Evita and Fiorello!
In 1970, he returned to the Broadway Theatre as a flyman, responsible for the rigging. Ten years later, he became house carpenter.
Rasmussen currently lives in New Jersey and drives 25 minutes to Times Square six days a week — "every show day." He has a six-man crew. "I hire them, handle my payroll, and make sure they're all here and behave right — I run a tight ship."
Between shows, he has taken on other tasks for the Shubert Organization, which owns and runs the Broadway and 16 other Main Stem houses. "We rebuilt stage decks at 10 Shubert theatres. We tore them out. There was nothing but a big hole down to the basement. Then we rebuilt the whole stage." Whenever there was a difficult job, it was always assigned to Charlie. Shubert officials say his work has saved thousands of dollars.
Rasmussen has been married three times (his first two wives died); he has two daughters and a granddaughter. He does not see retirement in his future.
"I've got no reason not to stay here. I don't want to retire. I drive in and do the show. It breaks up the day."